Aug 19 2014

The Product Within

Clang. Clang. Thwack.

I had inadvertently placed my recorder on the same metal table on which Kristin Franger was peeling beets. Each peeled beet, gradually staining her hands a deep brick red, was tossed into a stainless steel bowl, joining a collection of other red orbs. When I listened to my recent conversation with Kristin and Colin Franger of Blue Bus Cultured Foods, the couple’s words were frequently interrupted by this insistent clang, a noise that forced me to frantically rip out my headphones each time I heard it. As Kristin peeled over twenty pounds of beets, all destined for a future beet kraut, Colin shredded cabbage by hand, salting it as he worked to draw out the water from the brassicas, an early stage in its eventual transformation into sauerkraut. Every twenty minutes or so, a train roared by their industrial kitchen space in Bingen, Washington, the “whoo whoo” of its horn punctuating Colin’s description of a root relish, one of their seasonal experiments. “We put in radish [whoooooo], carrot [whooooo], onion [whooooo], ginger and garlic [WHOO-WHOO].” It was, as Colin put it, a “nice reminder of the industrial nature of our food.”

Each week, the Frangers turn pounds of vegetables, some of it grown nearby on their own farm, into their versions of sauerkraut, kraut-chi, and seasonal ferments. At their industrial kitchen space (the former home of Solstice restaurant before its move to Hood River), their focused peeling, shredding, and mixing easily morphed into discussions about the quality and texture of their product, analytical taste tests, and an underlying enthusiasm about the state of the ferments lined up along a side wall, which, along with the containers of fermenting krauts, included two crocks of kombucha.

In the middle of beet peeling and cabbage shredding, Kristin and Colin took a break to sample the “root relish” of radish and carrot that they had created two months before. They’d hoped to sell the concoction when radishes were in season, but had been forced to wait because their seasonal labels weren’t ready. Now, with the labels in, they were curious if the root relish were past its peak of flavor and texture. As Colin took a small bite, he shared that even though radishes were a “thing of the past”, he enjoyed the relish. Kristin interjected with a quick, “Really?! I don’t love it.”

This was an interaction that played out several others times on my recent July visit, whether the couple was discussing the chewy nature of a garlic scape ferment or the state of the cabbages destined to be transformed into sauerkraut. Each went back and forth with each other, feeling no need to mince words, driving conversations forward for the good of Blue Bus, secure in their business and personal relationship. In the case of those particular cabbages, the volleyball-sized vegetables were procured from a local distributor, not grown on their farm, and both concluded that they were unhappy with how they looked: covered in spots and a potential money drain, as they’d pay for a full order of cabbage, but would realistically only be able to use part of the order.

Listening in on these conversations and following behind their car as they drove the five or so miles up Snowden Road to their 1/2 acre hillside farm to harvest some of their own cabbage for that day’s kraut, I thought about the similarities between starting a business like Blue Bus Foods and starting a ferment like the kraut and kraut-chi Blue Bus Cultured Foods sells.

I first met the Frangers in April, literally the day before their final inspection and first day as an official business. In April, Blue Bus was in the “shredding and salting the cabbage” stage of an eventual sauerkraut: they had a logo, a secured kitchen space, and hundreds of vegetable starts on their farm. They were eager, questioning, and about to take a leap they could only partially control, with the hope that they had created an environment conducive to a good business and loyal customers, much like the initial ferment of a sauerkraut is set up to attract certain bacteria and inhibit others (more on that shortly). Late July found the couple firmly in the middle of their business, creating over forty gallons of kraut, kraut-chi, beet kraut, and an experimental ferment each week. Just as a fermented vegetable can take on a new taste and texture the longer it ferments, with the end product dependent on numerous factors that require monitoring and, in some cases, quick, intuitive changes, the Frangers’ Blue Bus business had veered in slightly different directions than predicted in April, attuned to market needs and time constraints.

The fermented vegetables that Blue Bus sells are not the same as the quick pickles you and I may make at home each summer, eager to transform freshly harvested vegetables into dilly beans or fennel pickled carrots. Fermented vegetables and quick pickles each rely on acidity to preserve the food, but quick pickles use vinegar (itself a fermented product), usually heated, to sterilize the vegetables. The food is preserved in acid and remains shelf stable, but the heat destroys the latent microorganisms present on food and creates an environment inhospitable to any microbial growth, including anything beneficial. Despite the prevalence of fermented vegetables in many food cultures and increasingly on American menus, a surprising number of chefs lack a real understanding of what makes their kraut taste like kraut. David Chang, the highly-regarded chef at Momofuku, has recently become obsessed with microbiology and fermentation in food, experimenting with mold strains and re-learning the differences between cells and enzymes. He finally understands what sauerkraut is, even if he still hates pronouncing certain tongue-twister bacterial classifications, after years of making it. As he tells it, “every chef I ever worked for, I had to make sauerkraut. Well, how does it work? It just ferments. Well, what is actually happening? Just ‘do this recipe’ isn’t enough.”

Each time Colin and Kristin harvest kohlrabi and cabbage, the inherent aerobic (oxygen based) bacteria on the plants are replaced by anaerobic (no oxygen needed for reproduction) bacteria, specifically Lactic Acid Bacteria. Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) can take two forms: the bacteria either produce lactic acid exclusively when they consume carbohydrates and sugars (known as homofermentative), or they also emit secondary products like CO2, alcohol, and acetic acid (heterofermentative). The cabbage, kohlrabi, and beets that the Frangers turn into kraut have enough native Lactic Acid Bacteria on them (specifically a kind called Leuconostoc Mesenteroides) to initiate fermentation, no vinegar necessary.

L. mesenteroide, a heterofermentative bacteria, will tolerate high concentrations of salt and sugar and can reproduce in a range of temperatures and salinity. It produces carbon dioxide and acids that rapidly lower the pH; as the carbon dioxide replaces any leftover oxygen, the environment in the crock of vegetables becomes anaerobic, suitable for other species of lactobacillus to take over, including a LAB called L. plantarum. L. plantarum is a homofermentative microbe that excretes lactic acid. The highly acidic environment that’s created by this succession of lactic acid bacteria essentially poisons the nest for anything other than acid tolerant microorganisms to survive, inhibiting the growth of bacteria that could decompose the food, and laying the groundwork for this stable network of LAB to thrive.

Colin walked me through the basic process of making fermented vegetables. First, the vegetable is grated as finely as possible to provide the maximum surface area for the lactic acid bacteria to proliferate. These grated vegetables are generously salted. Certain vegetables like the cabbage I watched him grate, when salted, will release enough of their own water in which to ferment. Others, like garlic scapes, don’t contain enough water in the cell walls, even with salt added to draw out the moisture, so they’re covered in a prepared brine solution of water and salt.

Colin shared that within several hours of salting and tossing the pounds of cabbage, the cabbage is always covered in enough of its own brine to be submerged when packed into crocks. Salt also slows down pectin-producing enzymes that break down down cell walls (read: mushy vegetables), keeps certain microbes at bay, and lengthens the fermentation process. Once the briny liquid is created, the vegetables are packed into airtight containers – in the Franger’s case, ten gallon vessels – and weighed down to push the grated vegetables below the brine and to ensure enough space for the subsequent CO2 to escape without pushing the fermenting vegetables over the edge of the crock. They’re then left to ferment, the successive interplay of lactic acid bacteria out of sight, but never out of mind.

To borrow a phrase popular among Pacific Northwest hipsters, fermentation is Colin’s jam. He’s a Sandor Katz acolyte and has been fascinated by fermentation for over a decade. “I made my first batch of beer when I was 18, and I literally sat in front of the airlock and watched the bubbles come out and was just amazed,” he said. “I did it with a friend who had done it before and he was like ‘what are you doing?’ and I was like ‘this is a-maaaa-zing’”, Colin remembered, laughing. When he and Kristin began dating, they started making sauerkraut and kraut-chi together, experimenting with flavors and fermentation times, but rarely writing anything down. A shift occurred about two years ago: instead of just enjoying the resulting ferment (or tossing it out if it was inedible), the couple began to record notes and measurements. For years, they’d made different versions of the kraut-chi and sauerkraut that they now sell, but now they were answering questions like “how dense are the ingredients we’re using?” and “what happens if I add more ginger?” to help them refine the recipes and increase quantities.

Blue Bus isn’t just a cute name and logo: it’s actually what Colin was living in when he and Kristin first met in Bend five years ago. “He was living in this awesome hippie house in a blue Volkswagen bus in the back of the house – that was his bedroom. I just like instantly fell in love with him. I promptly moved into the bus with Colin and that was it – it became our fun mobile for two to three years,” Kristin remembered. This free spirited approach took them to Baja (selling the bus to fund the trip) and then eventually back to the Columbia Gorge, where Colin is originally from.

Kristin and Colin began a series of jobs in Hood River, all directly related to fermentation and food. Kristin began working at Knead bakery and then Colin joined the business as a baker. Laughing, Kristin shared that she then “got a job at Double Mountain and Colin followed me. Sensing a pattern here?” Kristin left Double Mountain to work for the Gorge Grown Food Network, a job she still has, overseeing and managing three local farmers’ markets, though she’s reduced that number to one market as the Frangers have scaled up Blue Bus. Colin stuck around at Double Mountain for three years, working as a brewer while forming ideas on how to keep fermentation as a career, but not as a career that had him in “double lined Carhartts and rubber boots year round [with constant] machinery noises,” the daily environment of the brewery floor. “That was the kicker," he told me. “I’m an extremely active killed me to go to work and know that I couldn’t do anything outside all day long. And it’s not even that I need to go kiting or fishing or whatever it is, it’s just that I want to be outside as my work.”

That intrinsic need to throw open the doors to fresh air and variety meshed with the couple’s desire to work for themselves. As Kristin connected with farmers and worked for Hood River Organic for half a year, food began to dominate their personal and professional lives. “Before we started the business, we spent all our time in the garden: growing, weeding, harvesting, putting up, cooking. It was an amazing process to us,” Kristin recalled. Wanting to work in the food realm, the Frangers initially considered farming as a career, but never could fully envision their lives as standard vegetable farmers. “The art of fermentation was incredible to us as well. We love growing food, but the statistics of people who are making a living farming are really grim,” Kristin elaborated. It ultimately came down to the idea of selling a head of cabbage or a jar of sauerkraut.

They became farmer-fermenters, emphasizing that they’re “not veggie farmers that have this side product. We’re a value added farm.” Beyond sauerkraut’s relative shelf stability, focusing their farming ventures into creating value-added products gives them the freedom to make Blue Bus a year round business that celebrates seasonal food and their local foodshed, but create products that last beyond the brief window a garlic scape is available.

Fermentation seems to attract a mix of free-spirit and focused personas, and together Colin and Kristin embody each of these traits, their jarred and labeled creations enhanced by the ideas and approaches each bring to the fermented flavors and the business. Colin could easily talk about fermentation for hours, tasting and musing about different concoctions, basking in the wonder of it all. After three years of working at Double Mountain, he’s now intuitively aware of the factors he can control (temperature, salt, flavor combinations), without this concept of control ruining his enjoyment of the process or masking his handling of unexpected challenges, like temperature fluctuations in the kitchen or refrigerator. Equally awed by the process of fermentation, including the quality and taste of the product within the product, Kristin pushes for a better flavor, a crunchier taste, and the most enticing kraut they can create. I watched her carefully record notes on pounds of beets harvested versus actually used (after the stems were cut off and beets were peeled), and absorbed her general aura of high standards. She’s aware of how a product should taste, what will market well, and what will cultivate repeat customers.

The items Kristin and Colin must monitor and influence are numerous. On the fermentation side, they have to ensure that each ferment is covered in enough brine to be submerged, they have to limit the oxygen in the container for L. plantarum to effectively work (and not produce acetic acid – which it will do if given enough oxygen), and monitor for mold. And they have to closely watch for temperature fluctuations. At Double Mountain, Colin fermented in glycol-lined double-walled stainless fermenters, systems in place to keep the ferment at a consistent temperature. In the Blue Bus kitchen, Colin and Kristin occasionally have to handle wildly divergent temperature swings, always aiming for between 60 and 72 degrees in the cooler.

On the business side, the Frangers must monitor their own time: when to harvest, when to plant, when to make the product, when to sell the product, and when to cultivate new business relationships, all while nurturing their own relationship and navigating time-sensitive challenges, like all of their kohlrabi starts (rows and rows of them) maturing at the same time or labels not arriving when they should.

Though Kristin loves fermentation as much as Colin, and Colin loves local food as much Kristin, they also intersect in their desire to create a product that showcases their commitment to the Columbia Gorge area. They launched Blue Bus Cultured Foods with a community of support surrounding them, from the farmers they know, to local businesses eager to put their product on reserved shelf space, to restaurants eager to top their sandwiches with their kraut. Their love for the Gorge is so great that when I first met them in April, they thought they’d limit their product to this geographic area. But just as a LAB morphs into a different version (similar end result, different microbe), that idea had morphed three months later. In addition to numerous locations around Hood River and at the Hood River Farmer’s Market, you can find Blue Bus products in seven locations in Portland, as well as at the Moreland Farmer’s Market. Kristin told me that “I went into Portland experimentally and suddenly we’re going in every week,” adding that “I’m super happy about it.”

They’re still figuring out how to manage their lives as farmer-fermenters, using this year as they’d approach a new ferment: as an experiment. Yet, even in their first self-proclaimed experimental year on their half an acre, the farm’s yield speaks for itself. While not enough to pack all of their jars of kraut, it’s still an impressive haul for a couple pulled in so many directions: a year’s supply of onions, one hundred pounds of garlic, several hundred pounds of kohlrabi.

Yet, as large as those numbers sound, Blue Bus ferments about two hundred pounds of cabbage each time they make their kraut. Along those lines, Colin said that they’re “not necessarily committed to sourcing only from our farm, but we’re going to produce as much as we can from the farm.” If they only fermented what they grew, they’d have to produce all of their krauts during the four month cabbage window, refrigerate them, and sell those throughout the year, quickly negating one of the reasons they became a fermentation business – for a varied, fresh, year round product. Though a refrigerator slows down fermentation, it doesn’t stop it: “a product a week out of the crock will be quite different than six to eight months out of the crock,” Colin told me. And they’re both big fans of the “liveliness and freshness” of their product. In April, Kristin had already made the connection to looping in their Gorge community, sharing that “it may be that it doesn’t make sense for us to grow cabbage on our farm, but our friends in Parkdale grow it great, so maybe they’ll grow all our cabbages for us and we’ll focus on garlic and onion and radishes.”

For Colin and Kristin, their first year as an official business means they must apply their knowledge of what makes them good fermenters to become effective business owners. Lessons learned from fermenting are numerous. A bad batch of kraut can be thrown out and started over. Not every ferment is a success. Sometimes a root relish is jarred while fresh and lively and then has to hang out in the fridge for too long. Sometimes the cabbage isn’t good enough.

Becoming a fermentation business forced Kristin and Colin to recognize what they can control and that, just like the lactic acid bacteria in the kraut, there are a swirl of underlying factors that aren’t immediately visible but are equally important to the vitality of the product. “There have been [more] frequent occasions where I’ve been completely overwhelmed in the last three months than ever before in my life,” Colin mentioned. He continued, “I’m constantly having to realize that it’s all about perspective – if you roll with the punches and say okay one day at a time, I can choose to enjoy this moment or choose to dwell on negative things and make myself miserable.” Just as too much or too little salt can throw off the whole ferment, or the hopes for a balanced, gingery-beet kraut can’t be realized until the next incarnation when you have another chance to integrate more ginger, Kristin shared that she’s recognizing how important balance is in her own life. When she was still working her full-time job at the Gorge Grown Network, she felt spread in too many directions, forcing her to assess what parts of her life she could change, and which aspects were immoveable.

For now, the Blue Bus business plan appears to be modeled after what every good fermenter does: experiment, assess, analyze, accept failure, try again, replicate. They plan to have their three main products (kraut, kraut-chi, and beet kraut) year round, and to experiment with smaller batches of shorter season vegetable ferments. They’ve also ramped up their kombucha brewing, after an overwhelmingly positive reaction at the farmers’ market and around town. And that concept – experimentation – remains a strong presence as they aim to make their product even better than it already is (and take my word: it’s good enough to have you scraping your fork at the bottom of a jar an hour later, no sandwich necessary). Colin mentioned that he was curious to make a batch of kraut and “try it every single day for two months – to see when it actually reaches its peak to us.”

Will Blue Bus be the same business a year from now? I doubt that. The Frangers have plans to eventually buy farmland instead of rent, build a kitchen space closer to that future farm, and to invest in bigger fermentation vessels and a walk-in cooler. Business, like a ferment, morphs and changes in unpredictable ways. But for all the changes, the foundation of a business or a ferment carries through. Kristin and Colin created their business on a solid foundation with each other, a clear passion for fermentation, the outdoors, and local food. They’ve surrounded themselves with a supportive, interconnected community, both drawing from and feeding into their supporters. No matter what direction Blue Bus goes from here, this foundation of strong relationships, passionate observation, and clear ideals will always carry through, as the product within the product.